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UTHSC forensic dentist sifts through Trade Center rubble
(09-28-01)

The rubble of the World Trade Center still smoldered Thursday evening as David Senn, DDS, a forensic dentist from The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, made his way to a tent morgue for a 12-hour shift. Dr. Senn, a member of the Region VI Disaster Mortuary Team (DMORT), was called this past Tuesday to the site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that left nearly 6,000 people missing.

"To me the most incredible thing is how this city and country have pulled together," he said in a telephone interview. "Everybody is working so hard here; it 's the most concentrated and coordinated effort I have ever been a part of." Dr. Senn heads the preceptor fellowship program in forensic dentistry at the Health Science Center's Dental School. The program, offered in the dental diagnostic science department's forensic dentistry division, is the only university-based, postdoctoral, forensic dental program in the United States.

The World Trade Center work is slow and tedious. During Wednesday night's 12-hour shift, the bodies of only eight victims were processed, Dr. Senn said. The tent morgue is outside the American Express Building, several hundred yards from the World Trade Center. "I watched giant jaws on long arms reaching up and grabbing steel girders or hunks of metal or concrete," he said. "They move it into piles, where smaller jaws pick up debris, putting it onto trucks to haul it away. Small pieces of rubble are shoveled into buckets for analysis."

The DMORT was established under the Federal Emergency Management Act and is administered by the U.S. Public Health Service. Dr. Senn is one of the relatively few forensic dental specialists nationwide who are called to the sites of natural — or manmade — disasters. "This time we were asked to commit a minimum of two weeks. Some people might stay here longer. This is very stressful, and workers are subject to critical incident stress trauma if they stay too long. I likely will serve my two-week period here, return to work in San Antonio and then be called back again."

Dr. Senn said he is stirred by the hundreds of men and women working side by side as far as he can see. Disaster teams have made a grid system of the World Trade Center rubble in an effort to track findings and speed identifications.

The twin 110-story towers, and another 55-story building next door, now are concentrated into piles of rubble perhaps 10 stories high. "That it was reduced to this is truly unbelievable," Dr. Senn said. "The fires are still burning underneath. The firefighters are there with big pumpers spraying thousands of gallons of water.

"I am working in a morgue with pathologists, dentists and funeral home directors. Other DMORT members are in the main Manhattan morgue, attempting to make DNA identifications. You can imagine looking through 6,000 sets of dental records and people bringing in their loved ones' hairbrushes and toothbrushes. This task will not be over by Christmas, I promise you. This could take six months."

As long as the identification of victims continues, forensic experts such as Dr. Senn will be on this massive job, performing their unique service for the country.

Note: Bexar County dentists in private practice and at the Dental School are organized into a Disaster Victim Identification Team. Marden E. Alder, DDS, MS, head of the forensic dentistry division in the Dental School's department of dental diagnostic science, and David Senn, DDS, adjunct assistant professor of dental diagnostic science, are the co-directors.

Contact: Will Sansom (210) 567-2570